OCALA, Fla. — When Kelsey Still tells you her story of losing and regaining her children and surviving domestic violence, which included cracked ribs in a failed relationship and a tragic end to a difficult marriage, her face shows the pain but her eyes look full of hope.

Still, 30, has started to create a new life for herself and her children, thanks in part to the help of local advocates and the Community With A Heart campaign.

“Kelsey is one of the strongest women I’ve ever met,” said Shelia Arnett, one of the local people who helped Still with necessities, such as rides to her job at a fast food restaurant.

Still’s story can be traced back to a move three years ago to DeLand from Knoxville, Tennessee, with her husband Justin Still and their son, Grayson Perry, then age 2, in the hope that a new job would be the start of a new life for them. The couple later had a second child, Riley Still, who now is 2.

Kelsey Still said that two years after the family moved to DeLand, Justin continued to struggle with methamphetamine use and mental health issues. About a year ago, she said, she thought that if she left him and took the children it might make him quit using drugs “and get his life together.”

She moved to Daytona Beach with the children and went to work for a wireless communications company. She said she long tried to “protect” and support her husband and that he was always welcome to visit her and the children.

Eventually, Still said, she got into a relationship with someone else, which became physically abusive. She said she endured beatings, which included cracked ribs and cuts to her legs. She said she was desperate and afraid, and wanted to get her children to a safe environment.

Last March, she took the children to Justin. Within three days they had been taken into custody by the Department of Children and Families. The children later were placed in foster care in Ocala, within the 5th Judicial Circuit.

“I thought Justin was clean,” she said.

By last May, Still was able to break away from the abusive relationship by escaping to a safe haven.

“Domestic violence is real, and it is emotional,” Still said.

Elizabeth Long, a victim advocate with the Marion County Sheriff’s Office, said getting out of an abusive relationship can be “very hard.”

“The victim may be dependent upon the abuser for necessities and may not be able to support children, but there are recourses” Long said.

She suggested victims contact the Marion County Homeless Council and the Ocala/Marion County Domestic Violence/Sexual Assault Center.

Long said victims can file for protective injunctions at no charge, which typically puts an abuser who makes contact with the victim in jail with no bond. The SHEILD program can provide a monitor to be placed on the offender’s leg, for a charge, to monitor the offender’s proximity to the victim.

Long said it is not unusual for her to have 20 to 30 domestic violence cases on her desk on a Monday morning.

“The MCSO processed 2,016 domestic violence cases in 2017,” Long said.

“The abusive behavior is not the victim’s fault,” Long added.

Judy Wilson, CEO of the Ocala/Marion County Domestic Violence/Sexual Assault Center said the center can provide “options” and counseling especially at a time when the victim may be under stress and not thinking clearly.

“We can help with safety planning,” Wilson said, adding that abuse often “doesn’t stop and gets worse.”

Wilson said the center handled 3,437 unduplicated clients last year and sheltered 350 clients.

Still was placed in a safe haven for domestic violence victims first in the Daytona Beach area and later in Lady Lake.

On Sept. 23 Justin Still committed suicide.

“Justin was a good man, but he had his (mental health) demons,” Kelsey Still said.

She said she used her savings to pay for his cremation.

Still said she her mother had died in 2010 and her brother died in 2011, leaving her with few remaining family members.

On a mission to regain custody of her children, she came to Ocala last August and got a job at a fast food restaurant.

“My kids are my world,” she said.

Still said she never had any legal problems with DCF and that after meeting some requirements she was awarded full custody of the children on Nov. 2.

They have been living at a motel on Pine Avenue. With no car, she has been walking nearly 10 miles to her job site.

With a strained budget and some work missed during Christmas time, the three were to be evicted Jan. 1.

Still said she and her kids had their things packed to leave when the manager contacted homeless advocate Diane Coleman, Community Outreach Director for His Compassion Homeless Ministries of Ocala, who in turn enlisted the help of Arnett.

Coleman gave Still information about local agencies and His Compassion helped with the motel expense.

Arnett brought Still’s plight to the Marion County Children’s Alliance, which presented her case before the board of Community With A Heart.

The Star-Banner started the Community With A Heart campaign 31 years ago to help people in need in the community. It is now organized and run by a separate 14-member board of directors, all of whom are affiliated with local social services agencies and charitable organizations.

The annual campaign, funded by local donations, runs from late November through mid-January (although donations are accepted year-round), and helps people throughout Marion County.

The board considers specific cases presented by agency representatives. It does not accept direct appeals from individuals. Assistance is most often given in the form of funds to pay rent, mortgage or specific bills.

The board approved a $1,200 grant to help Still get an apartment, which she and the children will move into on Feb. 1.

“We are going to stay here. Coleman and Arnett are my amazing angels. I want to thank everyone in the community who helped us. My babies will be OK; we’re going to be OK. You can overcome if there are resources,” Still said. “Community With A Heart helped save me.”

Still said she could use a little more help, in the form of transportation, as well as furniture, household items and kitchenware for the apartment

To donate to Community With A Heart, mail checks to CWAH Fund, P.O. Box 1777, Ocala, FL 34478. Donations are tax deductible. There are no administrative expenses, and all donations go directly to help Marion County residents.

To help Still directly, contact Monica Bryant at the Marion County Children’s Alliance by calling 438-5990.


Information from: Ocala (Fla.) Star-Banner, http://www.starbanner.com/

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ANDY FILLMORE
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